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Sue Lani Madsen: Rebuilding trust in elections over dinner

We have survived yet another election. Are you ready to talk election integrity, voter suppression and low turnout before sliding into 2024? It starts with rebuilding trust over the turkey and gravy.

Stories of difficult conversations at Thanksgiving dinner have become parables of polarization across society. The best preparation might have been reading Monica Guzman’s book “I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times.” She wrote the book as the progressive Seattle-dwelling daughter of two Trump voters in search of harmonious family dinners.

Since this column is being published on Thanksgiving, let’s assume it’s too late to read a book. Start instead by assuming everyone at the table has good intentions, wanting good things for the community and the country regardless of the outcome of each election. Then fearlessly move on following the essence of Guzman’s book, boiled down to two words. Be curious.

Everyone’s perspective is shaped by their individual experience of the world. Commiserate with the disappointed, congratulate the winners, and then ask questions of curiosity. Not just about the other folks at the table, but about yourself. What has shaped your perspective?

Last November, as a dinner guest at Guzman’s home, the subject of the recently concluded elections came up over pizza with a politically diverse group. Guzman cheerfully said she thought 2022 had all gone smoothly. I harrumphed skeptically. It turned into a fearlessly curious conversation on a dangerously divisive topic. Ask a Washington Republican about election integrity, and you’ll hear about the 2004 Dino Rossi-Christine Gregoire race. Closest gubernatorial election in Washington history, margin of victory 130 votes out of nearly 3 million cast. Rossi was the winner in the first two tallies … until King County found 162 uncounted ballots in a warehouse, plus the canvassing board decided to accept another 566 disputed ballots and found twelve more stuck in a voting machine. Gregoire won on the third recount. Calls for a return to in-person voting isn’t all nostalgia. The Rossi-Gregoire ballot mishandling debacle underlies many conservative Washingtonians wariness of the all-mail elections process in general and the integrity of King County elections administration in particular. That legendary election is a contributing factor to low voter turnout in parts of Eastern Washington where you’ll still hear people shrug and say why bother voting when King County will just find more ballots in the basement. It’s a trust issue. The perception of shenanigans suppresses voter participation.

Voter suppression is a catch-all term for other trust issues. There are 11 common categories of barriers to voting, according to a Carnegie Corp. report. Some have more to do with funding priorities. Curiously, not doing enough to translate election information for citizens who speak English as a second language is labeled as suppression.

Others are related to the finer points of voting hours and polling locations, assuming inconvenience discourages voters. The convenience of all-mail balloting was supposed to increase voter participation in Washington, and yet turnout percentage peaked in the 2008 presidential election.

One solution to low turnout proposed at a briefing held by the House State Government and Tribal Relations Committee in Olympia in October is Australian style universal voting. Voting has been compulsory in Australia since 1924 and voter participation has been at least 89% in every election. Theoretically you can be cited for not voting, but such fines are rare. On the other hand, submitting a ballot doesn’t mean it was taken seriously. The number of “donkey votes” with ballots left blank, scribbled or otherwise deliberately spoiled has been increasing, attributed to young people not trusting their vote really counts.

Maintaining clean voter rolls is essential in an all-mail ballot state like Washington. Every ballot mailed to a dead voter or a tenant who moved presents an opportunity for fraud. Those documented cases support fears over maintaining election integrity, while every voter dropped from the list is eyed suspiciously as a case of voter suppression. Technically, every rule suppresses somebody’s vote, but only radical progressives argue for no rules. There’s a lack of trust in the intentions behind partisan legislation whether it’s making registration easier or seeking greater security. It’s an area where bipartisan trust is essential.

Start that dinner table conversation with curiosity about how your own experience shapes your fears. What would have to happen for you to be part of rebuilding trust in our elections? Compared to Australia’s results, Washington’s turnout at 84% in the 2020 presidential election year looks pretty good. What if Americans turned out to vote in the same numbers as we show up for Thanksgiving dinner? Turkey and gravy 79% participation, marking a ballot and sticking a prepaid envelope into the mail 36% in 2023. Increasing participation requires motivated voters who trust the system.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at

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